ABOVE: Juxtaposed are two intensely expressive works of art, Jacopo Pontormo’s Saint Anthony the Abbot (1518-19) and The Thinker (1880), the bronze and marble sculpture by Auguste Rodin that depicts a man in somber meditation. The early Christian anchorite St. Anthony (c 251-356) was one of the first known ascetics to retreat into the wilderness. He lived as a hermit for some twenty years in the ruins of a Roman fort in the Egyptian desert, and, according to his biographer Athanasius of Alexandria, his followers reported that they heard him moan and weep as demons tested him. Ending that period of his solitude, Anthony devoted himself both to training and teaching the great body of monks that had grown up around him and developing his ideas on self-discipline. He then withdrew again even more deeply into the desert that lay between the Nile and the Red Sea. St. Anthony’s temptations have been an oft-repeated subject in art. In portraits, he is generally depicted as an old man with a white beard, but here the last of the great Florentine painters portrays him as more youthful and vigorous.

Credits (left to right): © Alinari / Art Resource, NY and © Timothy McCarthy / Art Resource, NY.

“Faith is a rational act, and no man ever yet exercised true faith but that he sees reason why he should so do.”

Jonathan Edwards
Sermon on Romans 5:6 (1735)
Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow

The charge is regularly made that religion exacerbates violent behavior and that it is essentially related to the realm of affect. It is often also assumed that religious feeling is intrinsically inimical to reason. The purpose of this symposium is to reflect closely on the relation of religious faith, rationality, and the passions, to examine how this nexus of topics has been viewed by some of the great philosophers and theologians of the classical Western tradition, and to consider how the linked trio might be creatively reconsidered, both philosophically and theologically, in the light of recent developments in neuroscience, psychology, and the philosophy of the emotions.

The eighteen scholars and scientists gathered in Cambridge have the opportunity to chart the ways that some strands of the Western tradition aim to find some sort of integration of reason and passion (via a progressive purging or cleansing of the latter), whereas others eschew such an option. Much here depends, of course, on how ‘reason’ (or ‘rationality’) is construed, and also on the particular valency of the term ‘passion’. Passion is an ancient category, and attention will be paid to the nineteenth-century birth of the concept of ‘emotion’ as a term effectively replacing it.

The main point of this exercise of historical retrieval, however, is to reconsider the significance of the realm of affect for contemporary accounts of religious rationality. Recent developments in neuroscience would tend to indicate that feeling, far from undermining reasoned thinking, is in some respects vital for its operation. Psychology and philosophy of emotion also have a complicated, and somewhat ambiguous, tale to tell of the relation of these dimensions of human nature. Yet there remains a strongly-established cultural myth, often more assumed than argued, that human beings are essentially violent and that religion is a means both of circumscribing, and of venting, such violence. Is this so, and if not, how would one best argue to the contrary? The conversation about such questions takes place under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation at the first Cambridge college to be established for both men and women.